I was once in a Vietnamese restaurant on the outskirts of Amsterdam with the Italian MD of our German subsidiary (it’s a long story involving Panini stickers, a dead canary, Robert Maxwell and the Dutch bomb disposal squad – more of that another day).
Giuseppe, being fluent in as many languages as I’ve had hot dinners, ordered the food. The Dutch barman heard us talking, my obviously English eastend accent and Giuseppe’s German/Italian influenced English lilt.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Me, I’m from London”. I replied quickly as he sounded a bit aggressive.
“No, not you, him” he pointed at Beppe. “You sound… German”, a word he almost spat out.
I saw the look of fear (and understanding) developing in Beppes eyes. “No, no, no. I‘m Italian”.
The barman put down the glass he was cleaning. “Are you sure? Your Dutch sounds very German to me”. I was starting to get nervous. The four-eyed geeky Hackney boy in me was getting ready for flight.
“No, I just work in Germany. I’m definitely Italian”.
“Ok, I believe you”. The barman fixed him with a stare. He threw his final question “North or south?”
This exchange took place 20 years ago, 50 years after English, Dutch, Italian, German and many other European people had fought bloody battles not far from where we spoke. And it is important to remember that whilst we often portray wars as between nations, it is people that fight. It is people that die. It is people who remember the past. The memories of war ran deep in that bar.
In 1945 it is fair to say that the majority of Europeans who had visited another country did so in the uniform of their army. They went to kill the inhabitants of that country. In this generation it is very different. These days the closest British visitors to Europe get to a battlefield is to visit a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery to remember their dead. But they also go, and this is particularly true of the younger generations, to visit and meet people. My son heads to Germany in 15 days time. For past generations such a sentence would be full of dread. For us it’s a thing of joy that our children go on language trips and later go and live with French or German or Spanish families on exchange visits. They come back with their photos and stories of the places they have visited and the people they have met.
Most importantly, they come back.
Now, to get to the point of this, I’m not stupid enough to believe that this could only have come about with the existence of, and our membership within the EU. I won’t suggest that those EU members who were part of a repressive dictatorial empire would have remained in that state if the EU did not exist.
But I do believe this. It would not have happened so quickly. It would not have happened in such a concrete fashion. The people of those countries would not have been as secure as they have been in making the changes to their societies outside a structure as western and as liberal as the EU (and please do feel free to write in the comments all things the EU gets wrong, who knows, you may surprise me a come up with one or two I’m not aware of).
One further thing, and you can mischaracterise this as ‘project fear’ if you wish. Without the EU this process is more reversible than it is with it. And without the UK as a member we are more likely to see a demise of the shared experience that holds EU nations together. We are more likely to become once again a continent of competing nation states instead of a continent that has the free movement of people at the heart of its ideology. I know which one of those is more likely to lead to the Europe of the past.
I suspect that if my kids and Beppes found themselves in that same restaurant today then the conversation would be about the things that unite them rather than those that divided them.
And the barman would, of course, be Latvian.